Imágenes de páginas

thought that an enquiry into the progress of dramatic poetry ought to be preceded by such details as I could furnish regarding the public or private encouragement it from time to time received, and the state of society at particular periods when the stage either flourished or declined. The Annals of the Stage commence at the earliest period to which any records of the kind extend; and they supply facts connected with the establishment, promotion, limitation, or suppression of the theatre, as a national institution, down to the Restoration. It is admitted, that after this event our drama assumed an entirely new character. By the discovery of some valuable manuscripts, I have been able to carry back this portion of my inquiry to a more remote period than any precursor; and I have added many new and curious particulars, of a later date, to the scanty stock of knowledge before acquired.

When I commenced my researches, nearly twenty years ago, I was discouraged on all hands by those who imagined that Malone, Steevens, Reed, and Chalmers had exhausted the subject, and that, in the harvest they had reaped, they had not left even gleanings behind them. Nevertheless, seeing how many deficiencies remained to be supplied, I persevered in the collection of materials. I obtained admission into the State Paper Department, the Privy Council Office, and into the Chapter-House, Westminster, and I soon


discovered in those depositories many valuable original documents, throwing a fresh, clear, and strong light upon some of the most obscure parts of the history of our stage and drama. Among these were unopened patents to different companies of players, and original accounts of the royal revels from the early part of the reign of Henry VIII. ; while the unexamined books of the domestic expenses of our Kings and nobility, from the reign of Edward IV. downwards, provided me with a great variety of novel and interesting details. These sources of information had not been

to general search, and I was therefore not much surprised to find that a great deal had escaped discovery; but when I came to examine the manuscripts in that great national receptacle, the British Museum, to which every body could easily obtain access, I was astonished at the quantity of substantial materials which had remained there undetected. From the Burghley Papers scarcely a single fact had been procured, although nearly every volume contained matters of importance; and the Harleian, Cottonian, and Royal MSS. had been only cursorily and hastily inspected *. In these I met with letters from, and concerning, our most notorious poets, the predecessors and contemporaries of Shakespeare; and in a Diary, kept by an intelligent Barrister, who lived while our great dramatist was in the zenith of his popularity, I found original and authentic notices and anecdotes of him, Spenser, Jonson, Marston, and other distinguished authors of the time. It occupied me some years to go through the voluminous collections in the Museum, but I never had occasion to regret the misspending of a single hour so employed.


* To show how little attention they had attracted, I need only mention, that among the Royal MSS. I found two of Ben Jonson's Masks, in his own hand-writing, nowhere noticed but in the Catalogue, which is itself very imperfect.

In the second division of my work, the History of Dramatic Poetry, I begin with Miracle-plays (hitherto mistakenly termed «Mysteries '), as the source and foundation of our national drama; and I have, for the first time, adduced some proofs, that we were indebted for them to France. The account I have given of them contains much that was before unknown ; and the whole subject, while it is curious to the antiquary, will not be found without interest to the general reader. I am not aware of the existence of any performance of the kind in our language, whatever may be its date, that I have not carefully examined. I have thence traced the connection between Miracle-plays, consisting in the outset only of Scripture characters, and Moral-plays (or ‘Moralities' as they have been of late years usually denominated),


represented by allegorical personages ; and I have shown how the first, almost imperceptibly, deviated into the last, by the gradual intermixture of allegory with sacred history, until Miracle-plays were finally superseded.

This view of the subject, which does not seem to have occurred to any who have gone before me, is succeeded by a similar investigation of the structure and design of Moral-plays. I have endeavoured to point out the manner in which they, in turn, gave way to Tragedy and Comedy, by the introduction, from time to time, of characters in actual life, or supposed to be drawn from it. With this purpose, I have inspected, I believe, all, and in the course of the work reviewed most of the principal Moral-plays in our language, whether printed or manuscript, commencing with those most nearly allied to the Miracle-plays they excluded, and proceeding by gradations to those which, in their form, characters, and dialogue, more or less distantly resemble Tragedy and Comedy. It will be seen, in the course of this inquiry, that in process of time their separate natures became mixed and confounded, and that ultimately, as might be expected, the real was entirely substituted for the fictitious.

The growth of Tragedy and Comedy, from their infancy until they reached maturity in the hands of Shakespeare, has next been considered. I am not

[ocr errors]

aware that I have neglected to notice any production that could illustrate the inquiry, and the extraordinary facilities I have enjoyed have enabled me to examine some dramatic performances, in this and other views of great value, which have either remained unknown, have been misunderstood, or have been passed over in silence. This part of the subject has necessarily embraced an examination of the predecessors and earlier contemporaries of Shakespeare. I have been anxious to arrive at a just estimate of them and their works, in order to ascertain how far our great dramatist was indebted to any previous models, and to what extent he deserved the praise, which Dryden was the first to bestow, that he " ated the stage among us.*' It was, in truth, created by no one man, and in no one age; and whatever improvements Shakespeare introduced, it will be seen that when he began to write for the theatre, our romantic drama was completely formed and firmly established.

The romantic drama and the classic drama, as far as relates to the disregard or observance of the unities, perhaps had their origin in the same cause, operating upon a different state of society, viz., the imperfectness and incompetence of mechanical and scenic art. While in Greece and Rome the effect was


[ocr errors]

* In the dedication to his Translation of Juvenal, 1692.

« AnteriorContinuar »